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Biological Photography - Introduction and History, Subject Handling, Aquatic Subjects, Backgrounds, Photography in the Field

flash electronic especially image

New York State Agricultural Station—Cornell University

Introduction and History

Dating back to the cave paintings of primitive man, biological themes have long been popular subject material for artists. It is of little surprise then, that soon after the invention of photography, practitioners of this new method of illustration were doing likewise. Among other things, Henry Fox Talbot was making photographic records of botanical subjects as early as 1844 reproduced in Pencil of Nature , and the daguerreotype was used similarly soon after its invention a decade later.

In 1863, an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects), C. J. Cox wrote in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of London : “I do not overestimate the great value this art will ultimately prove in rapidly delineating, with most perfect accuracy, either single specimens or groups of insects. And I also believe we are on the threshold of a very marked period in the advance which the science of natural history is now likely to take, aided by a power so quick in action, so accurate in detail, and so exquisitely beautiful in its general character as photography.”

This prediction more than 150 years ago could not have been more prophetic. Photography has since become an invaluable tool not only for entomologists, but for researchers in all areas of the biological sciences. Biological photography now includes aspects of optical and electron microscopy (especially scanning electron microscopy), photomacrography, and photography in the ultraviolet and infrared regions of the spectrum. These topics will be explored elsewhere in this encyclopedia.

Photographs of biological subjects can be found in encyclopedias, textbooks, scientific journals, popular periodicals, on posters, and in lecture support materials for scientists and teachers. They also form a significant part of the collections of scientific photography libraries, botanical gardens, and zoos.

Two important milestones in the development of photographic equipment applied to biological photography were the introduction of the 35mm camera, particularly the single lens reflex (SLR), and the electronic flash. The SLR was first introduced in 1909, but its rapid development in the 1970s included a wide variety of interchangeable lenses—from macro lenses ideal for insects and other small invertebrates as well as many botanical subjects, to fast telephoto lenses for larger varieties of wildlife and birds that, for one reason or another, were otherwise inaccessible.

Synchronized electronic flash became widely available at about the same time and provided action-stopping capability, a critical factor when working with live subjects both in the laboratory and the field (Figure 17). Electronic flash also generates large quantities of light, useful at night and in caves or when doing macro photography where small apertures are needed for greater depth of field. A third advantage of using electronic flash is that it generates no heat, which could cause injury or even the death of small fragile organisms.

Over time, both black and white and color films became faster with finer grain, and in the case of color materials, more fidelity. The most recent significant development in photography is of course digital imaging, which offers many opportunities for biological photographers otherwise not possible with film.

Subject Handling

Biological photography is a specialty in which subject handling and preparation can be as important as the selection of camera equipment, lighting, and the recording medium. It can often be the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of this photographic specialty. In the photography of insects and other arthropods, they can be cooled down and consequently slowed down in a conventional refrigerator (not the freezer compartment). An alternate method is through use of carbon dioxide gas to render the insect temporarily unconscious. This is done by introducing a small hose connected to a bottle of the compressed gas to a vial or bottle containing the insect. The carbon dioxide causes the insect to assume unnatural positions at first, but as it becomes more animated, natural-looking photographs can be made. Timing is important—if the photography is done too soon the insect will not look life like, if done too late the subject will be out of the field of view or even gone altogether. Since insects, especially the larval (caterpillar) forms, seem to at times have insatiable appetites; many insects (and numerous other organisms for that matter) can be easily photographed while they are preoccupied with feeding.

Aquatic Subjects

Waterproof camera housings make it possible to photograph the numerous organisms that inhabit the oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water that collectively cover nearly three-fourths of the earth’s surface. There are conditions, however, which make photography of aquatic flora and fauna in their natural habitats difficult and often impossible. Turbid water, excessive depths, freezing temperatures, and the availability of hiding places for potential subjects are just a few of these.

Photography can often be carried out more successfully in the laboratory (subject size permitting of course) with the organism confined to an aquarium. Lighting, water clarity, and background can be better controlled and the subject’s movement can be limited to some extent. Smaller aquaria are best and even smaller ones can be constructed with small pieces of glass and aquarium cement. The size and activity of the subject should determine the dimensions of the aquarium.

Electronic flash, for all the same reasons mentioned above, is the preferred choice when photographing specimens in aquaria. Care must be taken to aim the flash or flashes at an angle to the glass to avoid reflections into the lens. Illuminating the aquarium from the top or at a 45-degree angle above, below, or off to the side of the camera will eliminate reflections. Another troublesome source of reflections is the camera and lens and everything behind it (including the photographer). Camera parts can be covered with a black card with a hole cut out to fit over the lens, the photographer can stand off to the side with a long cable release, and the room can be darkened to eliminate other sources of reflections. Small reptiles, amphibians, and even mammals can also be successfully photographed in various sizes of aquaria.


There are many considerations to be made when selecting a background for biological photographs. If a natural background is used, its content should not be contradictory to the environment and surroundings where a particular organism
might be found naturally in nature. The larva of an insect which feeds on apple should not be photographed on a cabbage leaf for instance, a freshwater fish should not be photographed in front of a piece of coral, and a lizard that makes its home in the desert southwest should not be photographed amid lush vegetation. While aesthetics should always be an important element in any photograph, the accuracy and veracity of the image must not be compromised for the sake of appearance if the image is intended for a scientific purpose.

Another precaution regarding backgrounds, especially natural backgrounds, is to make certain that some element of that background is not misconstrued as a part of an organism’s anatomy. Some objects in a natural background might also appear very bright and be distracting. Both of these problems often go undetected until the lens stops down at the moment of exposure.

Plain backgrounds are often used, especially when the photograph is to appear in a scientific journal where it is important that the subject is seen unobstructed and devoid of problems and interferences such as those mentioned above. When choosing a color background, the photographer should be careful that the color does not alter the color of the subject itself. Black backgrounds, in the form of black velvet cloth, are often used since they are neutral and do not influence the color of the subject.

Photography in the Field

Often times it might be necessary to do photography in the field. The reasons for this are many. Certain varieties of wildflowers, which are protected by law, cannot be picked. Subjects like birds, with the exception of those housed in aviaries and zoos, cannot easily be photographed in captivity, and some other subjects are better portrayed in their natural habitat. With trees, for instance, there is no choice.

Photographs taken in the deep forest, on overcast days or with long telephoto lenses, might require the use of a tripod. For many subjects, electronic flash once again is the obvious choice especially when doing close-up work. Many manufacturers offer flash units for close-up work comprised of what amounts to two separate flash units thus duplicating the main/fill light configuration of studio lighting. As for color temperature issues, electronic flash is compatible with daylight.

Tide pools are another specialized environment in which to shoot because of the air/water interface. Tide pool photography is much like photographing organisms in an aquarium except there is no glass. Ordinary ambient daylight usually provides adequate illumination, but electronic flash can be used to supplement it if necessary. The same rule governing reflections as regards to the angle of illumination to the surface of the water applies here just as it does with an aquarium. Polarizing filters might be needed to extinguish reflections independent of those that might originate from the flash unit(s).

Biophotography in the Digital Age

Digital imaging has altered the way biological photographers take and look at photographs. For the biological photographer, as for many others, probably the most important feature is the ability to instantaneously view a recorded image. In the (still recent) days of film, photographers who photographed small, fast-moving, and sometimes elusive subjects did not know if they had been successful until the film was processed. Since one of the most time-consuming aspects of biological photography is subject handling and preparation, the ability to repeat a shot while everything is set up and the specimen is still available is a tremendous advantage.

Similar advantages apply in field photography when a re-shoot might mean traveling some distance or the possibility that the subject might be difficult to find again or may no longer be there.

Image editing and processing software has further advanced the work of the biological photographer, often allowing the photographer to do the work that was once the province of the layout artist, such as showing the various stages of an insect (egg, larva, pupa, and adult) in a single image. Capturing all these stages at once on a frame of film was a daunting, frustrating, and sometimes impossible endeavor, especially if the adult happened to be a winged variety such as a moth or fly. Imaging software has also offered the biophotographer the ability to label images and add other annotations such as arrows. This technology also allows for “digital repairs” to be made to images. This can be as simple as removing distracting elements from a photograph, especially in a background, or as complex as adding a missing part to an organism. This should only be done as a last resort and only if executed in such a way that the result appears life-like and the “fix” is not obvious.

In general, all scientific photographers should be aware of the possibility of introducing artifacts into digital pictures by over-enthusiastic manipulation and retouching. If the image is an essential part of a scientific paper, it is good practice to retain the native image file in an unaltered state. In addition to work with a digital camera, a simple flatbed scanner is a useful way to make detailed images of biological subjects, especially those that are essentially two-dimensional to begin with such as leaves, flowers, feathers, etc. The advantage of this technique is found in its simplicity with a main disadvantage of the limited lighting possibilities. The key question, as with any other technique, is to determine if scanning is an appropriate imaging method for the subject.

Other Sources of Information

In the United States, the BioCommunications Association (formerly the Biological Photographic Association; http://www bca.org/) is a professional society of biological and medical photographers and communications specialists. In collaboration with three other societies, it publishes the Journal of Biocommunications , which incorporates the Journal of Biological Photography . Similar organizations exist in the UK and Australia and can suggest courses and other resources for scientific and biological/medical imaging.

Biometric Technologies - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, Fingerprint, Facial Recognition, Iris Scan, Retinal Scan, Voice Recognition, Signature Verification [next] [back] Biographies of Selected Photographers from the 20th Century - A-K, L-P, R-Z, ABBOTT, BERENICE (1898–1991) American

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